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Internet Explorer Private Browsing – What it Hides and What it Does Not


Part II of In private Browsing – What Internet Explorer Private Browsing Hides & What It Does Not

There are some types of data that In Private Browsing Internet Explorer deliberately chooses not to remove, while there are others it simply can't. When you finish an in private browsing IE session, here is some information about your surfing that might potentially remain on your computer.

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  • Flash cookies for Adobe Flash plugin release BEFORE 10.1. It is likely you run an Adobe flash plugin. If so, and you have not updated it for a long while, you will accept Flash cookies from sites you visit while in private browsing mode. Even with private browsing activates, IE is not able to delete Flash cookies – the Adobe plugin must do that itself. These Flash cookies clearly show which sites you have visited, especially those with visual media embedded in their pages. If you have a version of Adobe Flash plugin earlier than 10.1 (go to the 'Manage add-ons' menu in IE to check), it will not automatically delete Flash cookies at the end of your private browsing session. You should either update the plug in or disable it if you want to keep the integrity of your private browsing. You may also manually delete Flash cookies by visiting this page.
  • Favorites (a.k.a. Bookmarks): In private browsing IE deliberately keeps Favorite pages even after the privacy mode is deactivated. If you wish to bookmark pages in secret, it is recommended you use a password manager such as LastPass that offers its own securely protected 'Favourites' page.
  • RSS Feeds: Similarly to Favorites, any RSS Feeds that you add while private browsing will be kept even after you terminate the session.
  • Files you save. If you manually elect to download and save a file while in private browsing, it will remain on your system even after you close the browser.
  • Torrents. You might not believe it, but some users believe their torrents downloads will be protected when a private browsing window is open. Please understand, Torrents is a different application running a different internet protocol and can only be anonymized by services outside of your computer (such as a web VPN, as we go into below).

plus… In Private Browsing IE does NOT give you privacy on the web

All privacy tools have limits. With In Private Browsing activated, you may feel comfortable that your computer itself carries little trace of your surfing activity, but you should realize you have left dirty great footprints across a number of servers elsewhere. Even with InPrivate Browsing IE activated, here are some parties who will know exactly which sites you visited:

  • Your IT department. Of course, privacy settings on your local browser won't stop any of your IT department from seeing which sites you have visited. They keep logs of all sites accessed by company machines, so they may even view your supposedly private browsing session historically.
  • The sites themselves. Sites keep IP logs of visitors which can be used to identify you. Most successful sites you visit record which pages you viewed when and for how long.
  • Your ISP. Just as the sites do, your ISP also records your movements online. In fact, it is a legal requirement for ISPs to do so in most countries.
  • Government Agencies and Law Enforcement. ISPs support government bodies by using packet sniffing hardware for monitoring and tracking internet activity. When certain types of data are found (e.g. keyphrases potentially pertaining to violence or unrest), a user can expect to land on watch lists. Their internet activity will then fall under closer scrutiny.
  • Hackers and WiFi spies. It is fairly easy to hack WiFi connections and watch what people send and receive over the internet. Private browsing provides no protection against WiFi or network spying whatsoever.

Part III: How to Browse Privately not just on your computer but throughout the web

Written by: 
Robin Welles; expats team, internet security team